As a sustainability practitioner and consultant, I am often thinking about how we can solve some of today’s greatest social and environmental challenges from a business perspective. In the past, I have often focused on strategy, operations, and stakeholder / employee engagement to help solve these challenges. In the past few years, I’ve been spending much more time diving deeply into the space of sustainability leadership development. I believe there is a huge gap in this area, especially concerning the need to shift leaders’ mindsets and develop the necessary skills to lead us into the sustainable future we envision. I put this into practice in the work I am doing with Transitioning To Green and in my own personal research, expanding network of thought leaders, communities of practice, conferences I attend, and everything related to the topic that I can consume. Much of this work has to do with examining the systems in which we exist and operate, and that we continue to perpetuate through our unsustainable actions and behaviors.
Through this work, I have become increasingly compassionate (and concerned) about how and why leaders make the decisions they make because I believe a big part of how we think and operate has to do with having forgotten this essence of sensing – using all of our senses – in the decisions we make that shape our reality (and our future). This is related to work by MIT Senior Lecturer Otto Scharmer and his Presencing Institute. The work I’m doing also examines other fields from an interdisciplinary perspective such as Systems Change, Organizational Development, Behavioral Psychology, Learning, Human Development, Leadership Development, Experiential Learning, and Positive Psychology, among others.
As much as I am frustrated by our global lack of ambition and progress toward a sustainable future (especially as it relates to business with their unprecedented access to and control over the world’s financial, human, natural, social, and manufactured capital), I have learned to have compassion for most leaders because sustainability simply isn’t a part of their experience, their worldview. Most leaders, except for a few exceptional ones, don’t have the sustainability context and knowledge to fall back on. I realized that most haven’t had the luxury of 25 years of working in sustainable development and corporate sustainability as I have, and they certainly don’t share the same worldview and perspectives that many of us in the sustainability field and other related fields developed over years of practice and experience.
Many leaders today, especially in more senior positions, were trained in traditional business schools and/or have worked their way up in their organizations which, more often than not, have perpetuated and defended an economic growth-at-all-costs model and a profit-first or “shareholder primacy” mentality for decades. It’s what made them successful. Yet, sadly, this way of operating has exacerbated and caused many of the social and environmental problems we see today. Fortunately, things are changing.
Today, there is a growing wave of interest in corporate sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) practices. Awareness is key. But execution is critical. In order for leaders to be able to cause the necessary changes in their business models to be more sustainable, a fundamental shift in their mental models needs to happen – something I call a sustainability mindshift. Only by gaining this new sustainability mindset can they quickly learn important skills they need to successfully execute their company’s sustainability and ESG strategies.
Here are the Top Ten skills I believe are necessary for sustainability leadership. They are synonymous and complimentary with what it takes to be a successful leader today anyway:
Leaders must have at least a basic understanding of today’s concepts such that robust thinking, sensing, and dialogue can be achieved; and especially in the context of sustainability as it relates to their role, business, and industry. This is not to say that leaders need to be experts in all things sustainable. There are plenty of experts with whom they can engage for knowledge, understanding, and solutions.
Leaders must have at least a basic understanding of their role, their team’s role, and their business role as part of a much broader system that includes (previously unrecognized, accounted for, and/or fully engaged) society and the environment / planet in addition to the usual suspects of economic and financial considerations (not exclusive of them).
Leaders must have the ability to think critically about their strengths, challenges, value-creating opportunities, and risks within the context of a changing world (with an emphasis on prioritizing and aligning their teams around things that will advance their company, society, and the planet toward a truly sustainable future) and to make decisions that are informed by new ways of thinking, dialogue, and collaboration.
Leaders must shift away from short-termism (a result of prioritizing short term profits in the interests of shareholders and gross compensation inequities) to a long term view that considers the impacts of their decisions on a much wider set of stakeholders than they had previously considered as well as a longer time horizon. This is akin to the commonly-known Seventh Generation philosophy that we are all connected to a community (and society and planet) that transcends time. Leaders need to think about the impacts of their decisions and actions on future generations – both positive and negative.
To be effective, leaders and their organizations must (re)define and orient around their core values e.g. why do they exist? what is their true role and purpose in driving economic prosperity AND uplifting humanity AND protecting or regenerating the planet?
Leaders must learn to collaborate better, including working with non-traditional stakeholders (which requires a level of stakeholder awareness) and competitors (coopetition) to drive meaningful change. We are entering a new era of unprecedented collaboration that is being facilitated by a growing body of innovative technological solutions. Leaders must creatively consider opportunities to work together to drive change at scale within their industry and spheres of influence, including Public Private Partnerships.
Leaders must learn how to reconnect with their inner sentient beings and raise their levels of awareness and understanding of themselves and “others” in the form of a higher level of consciousness. This skill includes self awareness, empathy, mindfulness, compassion and vulnerability. These skills have been pushed aside in many business settings as they have not been seen as helpful in achieving levels of efficiency and financial success in today’s “mechanized” business systems. The true value of people and other living beings (conscious beings with whom we share this planet) as well as our own inward and outward journeys to connect emotionally with each other have been deemed “unessential” and minimized far too long.
Leaders must have a good handle on some basic communication skills in order to influence and align people around them (including their teams), to seek and transfer new sustainability knowledge and systems understanding, to collaborate cross-organizationally and extra-organizationally (beyond traditional organizational boundaries), and to lead by example.
Leaders must develop new levels of accountability which include taking full ownership of who they are and how they show up at work, and the impacts (both positive and negative) of their decisions and actions as they relate to a much larger interconnected, interdependent system.
Leaders must learn to set aside their notion of being the “expert” and to open up, create and support pathways for multi-stakeholder input, feedback loops, and co-creative innovation. We are all blessed with sentience, knowledge, and wisdom from our unique individual and collective experiences on this planet. We ALL have value to contribute. In order for us to move toward sustainable transformation quickly and effectively, we must rely on the “village” to come up with the ideas, thoughts, and concepts that will help us identify the shared-value-creating opportunities and solutions (and identify “hidden” risks) that we will need to succeed.